The much ballyhooed Secret Mulroney Tapes aired on the CBC Monday night and you know it’s not your normal Canadian documentary when you get the warning ”This Program contains coarse language, viewer discretion is advised”, it was a warning that appeared after each commercial break over the 104 minutes of the documentary.
With a musical score by Bruce Fowler that leaned heavily on ominous synthesizers and reminded one of such television fare as Miami Vice; or the movies Manhunter or Midnight Express, the illusion of great tension was kept alive throughout the program.
For those wishing to keep score at home, here is the scorecard of Mulroney’s verbal vulgarisms; one assumes he’s been to the parish priest for confession more than a few times in the last twenty years.
Number of times he barked out a God Damn – 17
Number of times he used the term Bastards-- 2
Number of variations on the word shit
(Horse shit, Bull shit or just plain shit)-------- 6
Using the F*&$ word for full effect---- 3
Number of times he said Jesus or Jesus Christ—8
If nothing else he seems to be fond of God and his only begotten son’s name, just not in the best use of those names.
Total number of obscenities 36! This works out to 1 obscenity for every 2.8 minutes of programming.
But if you could get beyond the shock of hearing a former Prime Minister sounding like the local guy on the docks, there was a world of interesting material in the CBCs’ Passionate Eye special.
Taken from the tapes of Peter C. Newman’s recent book, the documentary presented a picture of a Prime Minister so obsessed with his image and his place in history that he failed to take any responsibility for any of his own shortcomings.
This was a two hour expression of cattiness, cheap shots, bold faced bitchiness and a tinge of vindictiveness.
Mulroney was portrayed as a guy fixated on the media and its impression of him; he referred to the press as practitioners of mediocrity. He would express disgust and contempt for many of the major media figures of the time. Outlining how he frequently had to go above or around the media to get his messages out to the public. Mulroney was convinced that there was a whole cadre of journalists just in the game to get him. He seemed to smell conspiracy with the approach of every journalist in Ottawa, a town of which he said was crawling with an incestuous media with their own agenda.
He goes over his days of sharing the world stage with Ronald Reagan, expressing a rather steep sense of delusion over his importance with the American President. True he did seem to have a great personal relationship with Reagan, but as far as foreign polciy went, the Americans were just glad to have someone more onside with their beliefs. Iin the end American interests were much more global, than just that nation above the 49th.
There were clips of the much vaunted “Shamrock Summit’ of Quebec City held early on in the Mulroney years, the beginning of closer ties with the USA. With a musical score and visual images out of a Lawrence Welk episode it had a surreal quality in review, as the Prime Minister took the microphone to serenade his new best friend with a chorus of when Irish eyes are smiling. It of course was an image that gave many a journalist, satirist and editorial cartoonist a free reign to make mischief.
If as Mulroney believes, it was a period of time which the media tried to paint him as being in servility to Reagan, he really had no one to blame but himself. His whole agenda was to create closer economic ties to the United States, even if the country seemed rather split on the idea at the time. Surely even he must have realized that there was going to be some press coverage that did not fall into lock step with the Mulroney camp.
Using his chats with Newman (who comes across as rather sycophantic in his dealings with the former PM), he continually reinforces the importance of these sessions that he and Newman share together. Newman in fact seems to relish in the impression that he is perhaps the Prime Ministers' closest confidant at times,(or as Newman self describes himself, I was “Mulroney’s Pet Journalist”) in one memorable exchange Newman is found urging Mulroney to distance himself from Joe Clark and effectively hang Clark out to dry. Newman apparently became not so much a journalist, but apparently someone so close to a Prime Minister that he felt comfortable in making policy and internal discipline suggestions. Another telling moment is when Mulroney cautions Newman that thses conversatons are "just between us" and as things would turn out about 30 million other Canadians!
But it was his impressions of the other public figures of the day that served up the most contemptuous of statements. Mulroney seems dismissive of pretty well every other political leader of the day, no one apparently equal to his brilliance as a Canadian leader.
On John Turner he’s almost patronizing, saying how he feels sorry for Turner who in Mulroney’s impression had become nothing but a broken down and beaten man. Sharing an inside story on how Turner was making the rounds looking for corporate work but was having no luck, something that didn’t surprise Mulroney at all. At one point, Mulroney trots out some internal poll that shows of 17 key points of leadership, he trounced Turner on all 17. In the end he dismisses Turner as a shell of a man, stepped in bitterness and malice. An interesting observation, considering that by the end of the documentary one might say the same thing about Mulroney.
Betrayal was another one of the themes that would re-occur in the documentary, the betrayal of Clyde Wells on Meech Lake ; Mulroney denigrates Wells education suggesting that a simple tax lawyer from Corner Brook surely could not have the necessary intelligence to see the big picture of Constitutional studies. With Wells stand on Meech Lake part of the end of that Constitutional battle, Mulroney lashed out at the Newfoundland Prime Minister as well as former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Trudeau was in Mulroney’s mind, so jealous of the Conservative Prime Ministers success that he purposely had the Meech Accord scuttled, and then went to work on the Charlottetown Accord. Mulroney proclaiming that it was Trudeau that ruined this country and it was up to me to save it again. He seems to frequently take on the role of the great knight battling the forces of darkness.
He’s equally dismissive of Jean Chretien, a man that Mulroney seems to have little good to say. His demeaning language about the successor to Turner shows a certain amount of snootiness that seems steeped in the old Westmount traditions, rather than the streets of Baie Comeau that Mulroney frequently rattled on about. Mulroney shrugs off any importance of Chretien by suggesting that he’s not a well read man. Barely able to get through the Montreal Gazette, said Mulroney, “I’ll bet you the man has not read a book in twenty years”. We’ll hazard a guess that he’s read at least one book in the last three months!
But if you want to hear the pain of betrayal, it was the era of the ugly split with Lucien Bouchard that brings out some of the pain of the Mulroney years. In this section of the show he seemed to wear his emotions on his sleeve as he expressed the hurt of having a close friend betray him in such a public fashion.
The program ends with a look at the most disastrous election campaign of Kim Campbell, a person that Mulroney claims threw the election away. Suggesting that even at his worst John Turner was a more competent campaigner (about the only nice thing that Mulroney had to say about Turner) than Mulroney’s successor. Mulroney was shocked that she distanced herself from his legacy and ran her campaign without mentioning his record or achievements while in office, in the end he feels this is what cost her the election. When he describes her as vain and arrogant, well, geez are we the pot calling the kettle black here, the viewer wonders.
It was a most fascinating glimpse inside the deepest thoughts of a political leader in Canada, an expose full of rudeness, vulgarity and steeped of vanity to make one wonder what power does to those we send to elected office.
While he would frequently proclaim a God Damn during his screeds, Mulroney curiously would also offer up a God Bless to Newman, at the end of many of those same conversations, making for a strange combination of rudeness and reverence.
In the end we are left to wonder if power truly turns our leaders into bitter individuals, steeped in venom and self-importance? If this is the norm rather than the exception, then all we can say is God Help Us!
Update: Sean at seanincognito has an interesting take on the story from the point of view of Peter Newman's side of the screen, well worth the read to see the machinations of the reporting class.